In the early 1950s, a small Chicago-based religious sect predicted that the world was going to end on December 21, 1954. Their leader claimed to have received this information from an alien reincarnation of Jesus who went by the name of Sananda.
Their prophecy caught the attention of researchers from Stanford University, who decided to use the group as a case study in human nature.
Recently, author Chris Mooney wrote an article for Mother Jones magazine describing what the researchers learned. Since they were able to infiltrate the group to do their study, they were able to observe firsthand what happened when December 21 passed without incident.
First the researchers saw the confusion that occurred as members of the group tried to explain their mistake. Then the unexpected happened. The leader claimed to receive a new communication from Sananda. The new message was that the little group had not failed. On the contrary, they had saved the world from judgment by believing in the prediction. From that moment on, believers in Sananda were more convinced than ever of the truth and value of their mission. They adjusted their view of reality rather than admitting they were wrong.
So why is the study of this small religious sect worth thinking about? According to one of the researchers who studied them, this little group of fanatical believers remind us of a principle far greater than their numbers. “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
The article goes on to suggest that many of the disagreements that divide us are rooted in our natural instincts for survival. To protect our beliefs and emotional attachments, we push threatening ideas away and pull friendly information closer. This begins to happen subconsciously even before we are aware of what is happening. Self-protective reactions mobilize thoughts and emotions to protect our beliefs as if our life depended on it.
So a conclusion of this case study was that, “We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”
In light of our natural aversion to both physical danger and threatening ideas, the article suggests an additional thought. Leading with the facts is not the best way to convince someone to change their mind. It is much wiser to begin by connecting with the values of the person we are trying to persuade—“to give the facts a fighting chance.”
Such findings might sound familiar to readers of the Bible. Jesus became a friend of social outcasts by showing how much He valued them. In contrast to other religious leaders who despised and condemned them, Jesus let them know that they were safe in His presence.
If He had acted as if their sin was more important than they were, they probably would have avoided Him like the plague or joined with the religious leaders who were trying to get rid of Him.
Later, the apostle Paul wrote letters that repeatedly called followers of Christ to reflect the attitudes of their Teacher, not only toward one another but also toward those who opposed them. For example, Paul encouraged a young understudy by the name of Timothy to treat everyone with the kindness, patience, gentleness, and reasonableness of Jesus (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Admittedly, some of Paul’s letters seem to suggest that he could be stronger and more confrontational than his counsel to Timothy implies. On one occasion, he urged church leaders to protect the “flock” from “savage wolves” who would rise up from within the church to fleece the flock of God (Acts 20:29). Frequently, he wrote letters that encouraged followers of Christ to hold one another accountable for wrongs done against one another (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13).
So how then do we explain the fact that Paul could call for gentle kindness toward all and confrontation for some? One ancient church father by the name of Chrysostom (AD 347–407) answers that question this way: “A strong rebuke, if it be given with gentleness, is most likely to wound deeply: for it is possible, indeed it is, to touch more effectually by gentleness, than one overawes by boldness” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, “Homily 6”).
In the spirit of Jesus and Paul, Chrysostom calls for the kind of self-control and kindness that makes it easier for others to hear what they don’t want to hear. It is the kind of approach that let’s people know that they are respected and cared for even when being challenged and corrected.
Father in heaven, forgive us for thinking we could ever admit the truth about ourselves or change the beliefs of others (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Help us to value and love others the way You have loved us, as we wait on You to change our hearts and theirs. —Mart DeHaan